Most people who read about mountaineering come across the phrase “The Seven Summits” and wonder what that means. To answer that question, you first have to understand that the list isn’t universal, and based on your definition of the word “continent,” it can have several variations.
What Are the Seven Summits?
The Seven Summits are a list of 7 highest mountain peaks on each of the 7 continents – Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America and South America. The Seven Summits were first completed in 1986 by Patrick Morrow. However, the definition of the Seven Summits differs on how you view the borders of the world map.
Particularly, the differences refer back to Europe and Australia, since some scholars don’t view the location of Mount Elbrus in Russia as part of Europe. Some scholars also do not view Indonesia as part of Australia. This difference results in 4 possibilities for the Seven Summits:
- Everest, Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Puncak Jaya, Vinson.
- Everest, Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Kosciuszko, Vinson.
- Everest, Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Mont Blanc, Kosciuszko, Vinson.
- Everest, Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Mont Blanc, Puncak Jaya, Vinson.
The first two are the lists of two mountaineering legends, Reinhold Messner and Richard Bass, respectively. For this list, we will be using the Reinhold Messner version, because we are going by the highest peak in each established country in a continent. This means, Elbrus for Europe, not Mont Blanc; and Puncak Jaya for the Australian Continent, although, it’s not on the mainland.
For factual purposes, Richard Bass was the first mountaineer to complete the Seven Summits as according to his own list in 1985. Fredrik Sträng was recorded as having the fastest completion of the Messner 7 Summits list in 2007, completing it in just 191 days.
According to the Messner list, the 7 mountains that make up The Seven Summits (in accordance with highest to lowest) are as follows:
Mount Everest in Asia
Mount Everest is the highest mountain peak in the world and is located in the Himalayan Mountain Range. Standing at 29,029 ft (8848 m); it was first summited via the South Col. Route by Sir. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa in 1953. This is how the hillary Step got its name. It is the most technical part of the Everest climb and is located halfway between the South Summit and the Summit Proper at 28,839 (8790 m).
The mountain straddles Nepal and China, and it is said to grow between 1.27 and 4 millimeters each year. The figures have yet to be universally decided.
Although it was up for debate, reports initially stated that the 2015 Nepal Earthquake shrunk the peak by about 3 centimeters. However, the final report states that Everest did not shrink, but actually moved 3 inches closer to Nepal as a result of the Earthquake.
Mount Everest is a highly commercialized destination, with tragedies over the course of mountaineering history. Most notably, it is known for the 1996 Everest Disaster that tragically killed 8 climbers, including Rob Hall and Scott Fischer. In recent history, it has been in the spotlight because of the 2015 earthquake that caused an avalanche that killed 15 Sherpas and 22 people in total on the mountain.
Everest is the highest peak on Earth, but it is not the most technical. That title is held by the second tallest mountain in the world, K2, the king of mountains, also located in the Himalayan/Karakoram Range.
Aconcagua in South America
Aconcagua is the highest mountain outside of Asia and is located in the Andes Mountain Range in South America. Aconcagua measures in at 22,838 ft (6,961 m) and was first summited by Matthias Zurbriggen in 1897 via the Northwest Wall’s Normal Route.
Located in the Mendoza Province of Argentina, Aconcagua is in the home to some of the finest wines around. Like Everest, it is not considered to be a technical mountain per se.
Denali (Formerly Mt. McKinley) in North America
Denali is the tallest mountain in North America, located in the American state of Alaska in the Alaska Mountain Range. Denali stands at 20,310 ft (6,190 m) and was first summited in 1913 by Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens, Walter Harper and Robert Tatum via the South Summit Route.
Since 1896, the mountain drew much controversy over its name, with the native population arguing for “Denali” and the US Government for “Mt. McKinley.” This latter was the name a gold prospector gave it in 1896 in honor of President William McKinley.
The US adopted that name officially in 1917, and from 1975 until 2015, Alaska fought to have the name changed to its original native name of Denali. In the past, this mountain was also called Bolshaya Gora when it was still Russian territory. And in 1889, the peak was referred to as Densmore’s Mountain in honor of a prospector, making this mountain one of the most heavily named in history.
In 1906, Frederick Cook claimed to have summited the mountain, but that claim was later disproven.
Kilimanjaro in Africa
Kilimanjaro is the fourth tallest mountain in the world and is also a stratovolcano; it is located in Africa. The mountain is made up of three separate volcanos that rose next to each other, Mawenzi, Shira and Kibo, which is the highest of the three. Currently, Mawenzi and Shira are dead volcanos, but Kibo is a dormant volcano.
Kilimanjaro stands at 19,341 ft (5,895 m), and it was first ascended by Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purtscheller in 1889. Many scientific expeditions have been conducted on Kilimanjaro for various reasons. Most of them are to research the shrinking glaciers that sustain the communities below it. Two of these are documented in the films “IMAX Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa” (Stream on Amazon Prime Video) and “Climbing to the Roof of Africa”.
Elbrus in Europe
Elbrus is the highest mountain peak in Europe. However, this has been debated heavily. Many opt to replace it with Mont Blanc as the highest peak on the continent.
Elbrus is a dormant volcano with 2 peaks, the East Summit, and the West Summit. The West Summit is the tallest and was first ascended by a British expedition led by F. Crauford Grove, which included Frederick Gardner, Horace Walker and Peter Knubel.
Mount Elbrus stands at 18,510 ft (5,642 m) and is generally considered to be Europe’s highest mountain. The debate is over the position of the Caucasus Mountain Range and how it’s distributed between Europe and Asia. Most scholars draw the line between Europe and Asia at the Caucasus Watershed, placing the mountain on the European side of Russia.
In 1990 a competition between the Soviets and Americans over who could reach the peak the fastest took place. Anatoli Boukreev won via the Priut 11 Route to the lower East Summit. Boukreev is a survivor of the 1996 Everest Disaster. During that season, he saved three people including Charlotte Fox.
(Read Book Analysis: “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer for more information on Anatoli Boukreev’s controversial role in the 1996 Everest Disaster. Also, see our analysis on The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev)
Puncak Jaya in Australia
Puncak Jaya is one of the disputed mountains on the Seven Summits list as well. It is not technically in Australia, but it is located in Papua Province, Indonesia. The mountain is also known as the Carstensz Pyramid and is in the Sudirman Range. It measured height is 16,024 ft (4,884 m) tall.
This mountain has a ghastly and eerie look to it and is disputed because of where the continental plates meet. It is placed as being on the continent of Australia, however, Indonesia is technically part of Asia. But that’s a story for another article.
The highest island peak in the world, Puncak Jaya was first summited in 1962 by Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, Philio Temple of New Zealand, Russell Kippax of Australia and Dutch patrol officer Albertus Huizenga.
Vinson in Antarctica
Mount Vinson is located in the Sentinel Range of the Ellsworth Mountains in Antarctica. First discovered in 1958 by a US Navy aircraft; it was named after Carl G. Vinson. Vinson was a US congressman representing the state of Georgia.
The mountain was named after him because of his relentless support of Antarctic exploration. Vinson stands at 16, 050 (4,892 m), and it was first summited in 1966 by Nicholas Clinch via the West Side.
When it was first discovered, the mountain was considered to be one whole entity inclusive of the Vinson Massif. In 2006, USACAN declared that Mount Vinson was separate from the Vinson Massif.
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